Monday, October 01, 2007

If not Seeker-Sensitive, what then?

I recently finished Blue Like Jazz, a terrific book by Donald Miller. Partly it was terrific because Miller can actually write (see below), but also because had a number of really profound insights. Really great books don't just reveal their own insights; they inspire new perspectives. Blue Like Jazz ignited me: ideas that were just smoldering embers--just the suggestion of illumination--have caught fire.

One of these epiphanies is about the Seeker-Sensitive movement in American evangelical Christianity. When I first heard about Willow Creek, the pioneering seeker-sensitive church, I was excited. Here was a church that realized most unchurched people were tired of "churchy" stuffiness and bewildered by the Church-speak and idiosyncratic culture so prevalent in so many American congregations. Willow Creek's Sunday morning services were designed for people who had not (yet) professed Christian faith. Their "Believer's Service" was on Wednesday night. People who scorned the seeker-sensitive model as "selling Jesus," were, I thought, simply denying the problem that churches were only drawing people who already understood and liked church. How could anyone be content with the status quo?

Recently, however, whole seeker-sensitive model has been unattractive to me. Seeker-sensitive approaches bother me. Why?

I think it because the seeker-sensitive model is attractional. The goal is to get people to come to church, and the Sunday gathering is designed to get people to want to come, to bring their friends. Since the goal is to attract people and to keep them coming back, churches try their hardest to put on a good show. Music and drama have to be really good: culturally relevant, witty, poignant. They don't want visitors to think they're out of touch with the real world; the church has to keep a credible voice. This was the allure of the seeker-sensitive movement for me: finally, we are acknowledging how embarrassing it is to take your friend to church and have the whole thing be so hokey, so amateur.

One reason I'm moving away from embracing the seeker-sensitive approach is that it's kind of a bait-and-switch. We try to get people into church with a flashy show, but hope they'll stay for the deep spiritual growth. Besides, we're not really all that put together. We're broken human beings, prone to arrogance, half-hearted attempts, embarrassing mistakes--we are hokey and amateur, and the good news is that God loves us anyway. Or, put another way, church should be "for people who are tired of trying to be cool, tired of trying to get the world to redeem them." (Hey, look, that guy again!)

But the primary reason I've changed my mind is that the attractional model, at its core, expects people to come to us. Our efforts in "reaching the world for Christ" are consumed by trying to get them to come to our place, our turf. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Tim Stafford contrasts the attractional model with the missional model (as does David Fitch). The missional model (as I understand it) is one that sees the meeting of Christians as the time to celebrate the work that God is doing in the world, a re-invitation to participate in that. Our meeting is all about coming to God again, receiving his blessing through community, that we may better the world with Him. The missional model means "reaching the world for Christ" happens out in the world.

One of the things Miller talks about in Blue Like Jazz is love, and how too often we use love like a commodity. We reward people with love, or use love as an incentive. I fear this is what is behind the seeker-sensitive model. "If you will only come inside, we will love you like family." But the missional model says that love is intrinsically good to give, so go give it away. Love can't be a commodity if it comes from God, because commodities have limited supply. But God's Love is infinite, and we can never run out of it. Why not love everybody you meet, love them deeply, love them recklessly? Because infinity minus anything is still infinity. Indeed, God's love is the only thing that is infinite; knowledge, prophecies, awe-inspiring displays of power and creativity? They will pass away.

I think we don't trust the transformative power of Love. "It would be great if it were that simple," we say, "if all we had to do was just love everybody, but how can we be confident anyone will get saved?" So we try to construct good arguments, design cool worship experiences, put on spectacular and aesthetically sensitive productions, because we fundamentally believe that Love isn't enough. When we are missional, the reason we gather together is to learn again how to Love, to be renewed and transformed into Lovers of the world, the same way Jesus Loved the world, while we were yet sinners.

I've been using the word "We" because while I get excited about these epiphanies, I know I am so far from living them out. I withhold love in order to control. I try to design cool worship gatherings to make people want to come to church. This is why I need a worshipping community in which to confess, pray, ask questions, be challenged, and receive God's blessing.

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